So much to learn about emergency remote teaching, but so little to claim about online learning

March 30, 2020 at 10:20 am 7 comments

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Jonathan Zimmerman on March 10 arguing that we should use the dramatic shift to online classes due to Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to research online learning (see article here).

For the first time, entire student bodies have been compelled to take all of their classes online. So we can examine how they perform in these courses compared to the face-to-face kind, without worrying about the bias of self-selection.

It might be hard to get good data if the online instruction only lasts a few weeks. But at institutions that have moved to online-only for the rest of the semester, we should be able to measure how much students learn in that medium compared to the face-to-face instruction they received earlier.

To be sure, the abrupt and rushed shift to a new format might not make these courses representative of online instruction as a whole. And we also have to remember that many faculty members will be teaching online for the first time, so they’ll probably be less skilled than professors who have more experience with the medium. But these are the kinds of problems that a good social scientist can solve.

I strongly disagree with Zimmerman’s argument. There is a lot to study here. There is little to claim about online learning.

What we are doing right now is not even close to best practice for online learning. I recommend John Daniels’ book Mega-Universities (Amazon link). One of his analyses is a contrast with online learning structured as “correspondence school” (e.g., send out high-quality materials, require student work, provide structured feedback) or as a “remote classroom” (e.g., video record lectures, replicate in-classroom structures). Remote classrooms tend to have lower-retention and increase costs as the number of students scale. Correspondence school models are expensive (in money and time) to produce, but scales well and has low cost for large numbers. What we’re doing is much closer to remote classrooms than correspondence school. Experience with MOOCs supports this analysis. Doing it well takes time and is expensive, and is carefully-structured. It’s not thrown together with less than a week’s notice.

My first thought when I read Zimmerman’s essay was for the ethics of any experiment comparing to the enforced move to online classes versus face-to-face classe. Students and faculty did not choose to be part of this study. They are being forced into online classes. How can we possibly compare face-to-face classes that have been carefully designed, with hastily-assembled online versions that nobody wants at a time when the world is suffering a crisis. This isn’t a fair nor ethical comparison.

Ian Milligan recommends that we change our language to avoid these kinds of comparisons, and I agree. He writes (see link here) that we should stop calling this “online learning” and instead call it “emergency remote teaching.” Nobody would compare “business as usual” to an “emergency response” in terms of learning outcomes, efficiency, student satisfaction, and development of confidence and self-efficacy.

On the other hand, I do hope that education researchers, e.g., ethnographers, are tracking what happens. This is first-ever event, to move classes online with little notice. We should watch what happens. We should track, reflect, and learn about the experience.

But we shouldn’t make claims about online learning. There is no experiment here. There is a crisis, and we are all trying to do our best under the circumstances.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

What I learned from taking a MOOC: Live Object Programming in Pharo How I’m lecturing during emergency remote teaching

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Robert Radcliffe Gotwals Jr.  |  March 30, 2020 at 10:38 am

    Yep. Some of us aren’t affected too much by the change here…I for one am a computationalist, so there’s no “lab” to be missing, and I teach online pretty much full time. Computational courses lend themselves well to that type of science. However, I’m frantically trying to help my F2F colleagues, both in terms of moving their science to computational AND helping them with simple logistics (Zoom, breakout rooms, etc.). “Emergency remote teaching/learning” is exactly the correct label.

    The only POSSIBLE upside to this is that my colleagues, many of whom look at computational science with a sneer, are now open to the possibilities. I’ll take it.

  • 2. Christopher Vickery  |  March 30, 2020 at 10:49 am

    What’s good about Zimmerman’s thesis is that it triggered this excellent clarification of what the real situation is.

  • 3. orcmid  |  March 30, 2020 at 10:57 am

    Well said, Mark

  • 4. npslagle  |  March 30, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    I totally agree. My institution seems to be in an incredible rush to move forward, and it’s leaving many behind. It isn’t clear we’re doing more than adding stress at this point, and students aren’t happy.

    I’m trying to make that argument, but so far I’m shouting in a vacuum. Any ideas on how to proceed?

  • […] following notes are my response to his latest commentary , So much to learn about emergency remote teaching, but so little to claim about online learning  , about a suggestion that we take advantage of enforced school closures to compare classroom with […]

  • 6. alfredtwo  |  March 31, 2020 at 10:31 am

    Emergency remote teaching sure sounds like what I am doing. Moving courses online on 72 hours notice, as teachers at my school were asked to do, is no basis for a good study.

    I do think there is a lot we can learn from it. I’m getting all sorts of ideas about what I would like in a remote lecture tool as well as what I would like for other interactions. But as someone pointed out to me, we are trying to replicate the brick-and-mortar model in the online world and that may not be the best way to teach online.

    Taking that next step to doing remote teaching an a new and, dare we hope, better way will take a lot of work. If nothing else this emergency remote teaching is going to get some people thinking about that.

  • […] instead a forced emergency, and unlike any online class I’ve created before, something that others have written about more eloquently than I could. That said, I would rather teach under these circumstances than not teach at all, so I approached […]


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